From the Foo Fighters to Michele Bachmann: Questions about media freedom and control


I’ve gotten emails like this one several times, always from beginning reporters:

“I’m almost done with the story, and I’ll send it to you as soon as [the subject of the story] approves it.”

The email reflects an eagerness to make everybody happy that is quintessentially Minnesota nice. It’s a great attitude for a server in a fine-dining restaurant or a salesperson at Macy’s, but definitely not part of a journalist’s job description.

A related question came up in Jay Gabler’s column this week about photojournalism and concert photography. Jay responded to a City Pages blog about the Foo Fighters’ demand for ownership of all photos taken by photojournalists at their concert. The column sparked heated debate in the comment section, and an extended discussion in our staff meeting as well.

The issue, briefly, is that Foo Fighters required any photographer to sign a contract “requiring approval of all photos prior to publication and, further, demanding permission to republish the photos for their own purposes, in perpetuity, without payment or credit.” City Pages said no. Jay argued that the “increasingly oppressive contracts national touring acts are asking photographers to sign before being granted access to photograph their shows” may be the price of a new media landscape with “more voices being heard more often, by more people.”

The pushback from readers centered around two issues: professionalism and payment.

First, some argued that photojournalism IS journalism, and that submitting photos for approval is the same as submitting written reviews for approval. That, said one anonymous commenter, “is no longer journalism. That is an artist using the many skills of the writer, paid for (or at least provided) by someone else, to augment the artist’s p.r. and marketing effort.”

Second, there’s the question of payment. At the Daily Planet, we don’t pay freelancers who photograph concerts. Jay explained:

If we had to pay for live music photography, we just wouldn’t have any, period. Knowing that, a large number of very talented photographers still choose to donate their time and their skill—in part because they support our mission, but in large part because they then get access to concerts for which they’d otherwise need to buy a ticket and not photograph. When it works, it’s a win-win-win situation for the publication (we get the coverage), the photographer (they get the access and the experience), and the band (they get the publicity).

And that raises another question: Is it important enough for us to put our finite budget and space and editorial time into covering what is basically corporate music that is big enough to impose those conditions? Or do we better serve our mission by focusing on smaller, more local, less corporate acts?

It comes down to a balancing act. Our photographers and citizen journalists gain experience and build their portfolios by reporting on the big-name acts — which they willingly do without pay — and we spend our budget on paying them to photograph and report on undercovered local events, such as Zafira, the Olive Oil Warrior or Czech and Slovak Sokol Minnesota or the Hmong Arts and Music Festival, which would otherwise go without coverage. Both sides of the equation — helping our citizen journalists and photographers practice their skills and build portfolios and covering the community stories — are part of our mission.

So what’s our response to the writer email cited at the beginning of the article, and to photo approval requests from music acts?

Our policy on writers sending articles to sources for “approval,” remains the same — don’t do it. Ever. Part of our mission is training and mentoring citizen journalists. When I get an email like the one at the beginning of this column, I explain that this is not journalistic practice, and in our journalism workshops we discuss this issue, among others.

Moving forward, the Twin Cities Daily Planet will not publish photos that have been submitted for approval by their subjects. We appreciate the lively discussion in the comment section and the thoughtful, passionate email that focused our staff discussion.

We are part of a transformation in the world of journalism that has both positive and negative aspects. As that transformation proceeds, conversation about ethical issues takes place all over the web, as well as in journalism schools and newsrooms.

In May, for example, the Poynter Institute raised the question of staged photos following the president’s announcement of the death of Osama Bin Laden. According to senior AP Staff Photographer Pablo Martinez Monsivais, “The statement for the photographers took place two to three minutes after the live speech and it happened very quickly — extremely fast — with each photographer rotating into the center position.”

Poynter noted that AP reveals in its captions that the photo is taken after the news conference, but not all newspapers publish that disclaimer. The practice had been standard for a long time:

Doug Mills, New York Times photojournalist and former Associated Press staffer, says it has been done this way “always, always … well, as long as I have covered the White House, going back to the Reagan administration. We [still photographers] have never, never, never, ever been allowed to cover a live presidential address to the nation!”

Poynter noted that “this practice of re-enacting a historic speech flies directly in the face of the National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics, which includes this relevant passage: ‘Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.'”

After the Poynter post sparked wide-ranging discussion and criticism, the White House ended the practice of staged photos, but press photographers “expressed concern that a new arrangement might be even more restrictive, forcing them to become more reliant on pool photos or worse, photos supplied by the White House.”

An interesting side note on the uses of social media in reporting: the re-enactment was revealed in a tweet by David Farré of the Burlington Free Press, and blogged about by Reuters photographer Jason Reed and freelance visual journalist and instructor Charles Apple, which is how it came to the attention of Poynter’s Al Tompkins.

And another restriction on coverage comes from presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, according to a recent New Yorker profile:

The leased, fourteen-seat corporate jet was to serve as Bachmann’s campaign hub for the next few days, and, before the plane took off, her press secretary, Alice Stewart, announced to the six travelling chroniclers that there was one important rule. “I know everything is on the record these days,” Stewart said, “but please just don’t broadcast images of her in her casual clothes.”

And the journalists did as they were told. The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza reports:

It was a good day for Bachmann: a new poll showed her sharing the top position in Iowa with Mitt Romney. After we landed in Des Moines, an aide handed Bachmann a copy of that morning’s Des Moines Register. She swung around to face the press, displaying the front-page headline: “ROMNEY, BACHMANN LEAD REPUBLICAN PACK.” It was a perfect shot. The members of the press looked at her cargo pants and then at one another. Nobody took a picture.

The New Yorker story revealed behind-the-scenes agreement on what could and could not be photographed. Similarly, behind-the-scenes agreements govern what’s on the record and off the record and when individuals can be named and quoted.

Recently, New York Times correspondent Derek Willis pointed out the absurd contention of some congressional public relations staffers that their public Twitter feeds are “off the record.” That, of course, is utter nonsense, but public officials do ask for — and get — agreements to keep their names “off the record” in exchange for information, even when those agreements violate the stated policy of newsrooms. Other recent ethical issues in the mainstream media include violation of the policy that forbids paying sources for interviews and building a journalism career that starts with a lie.

While “new media” and online media and citizen journalism may have problems, we are not alone. All of the examples cited above come from big-time, mainstream media.

Public perception of the news media shows a continuing concern over independence, influence and control. According to a Pew study released today, “The percentage saying news organizations are often influenced by powerful people and organizations has reached an all-time high of 80%.”

As the debates over what is ethical and what constitutes undue influence or control continue, we invite readers to add your voices to the discussion. Like ethics, journalism is too important to be left exclusively to the professionals.